Protest Songs

When marches and street parades celebrating working class solidarity began springing up with increasing regularity at the turn of the 20th century, it seemed to provide “historic proof that the workers of the world were to unite in a common cause.” That’s how J. B. McLachlan biographer David Frank put it.

Here’s how radical union organizer J.B. McLachlan himself described May Day parades in Cape Breton coal-mining towns in the 1920s:

“The workers of this land are our comrades and brothers, the capitalists of this land our robber enemies. The complete solidarity of the former is our hope, the complete extermination of the latter our aim.”

An essential part of the labour movement — in times of struggle and celebration alike — were the songs of protest that miners and steelworkers sung as they gathered and marched. 18 of those songs, the only surviving parts of which were lyrics published in the Maritime Labour Herald in the 1920s, are now brought back to life on protestsongs.ca.

Richard Mackinnon from the Centre for Cape Breton Studies at CBU worked with local musicians — like Colin Grant, Ian MacDougall from the Tom Fun Orchestra, and Nipper Macleod of the Men of the Deeps, among others — to set the lyrics to music.

The result is a collaboration of sorts, across almost a century. (Although sometimes the struggles of the past don’t seem so distant.)